South Africans love being outside and who can blame them with all the great outdoor spaces and lovely sunny weather conditions. However, the outdoors also has an abundant bee population. Bees are beneficial to the environment, and if left alone will generally mind their own business, but they can also sting us if we threaten them, whether accidentally or not.
To most, being stung by a bee is slightly annoying and a little painful but can quite easily be treated at home. But for people who are allergic to bee stings, getting stung can trigger a strong reaction serious enough to warrant emergency treatment. This usually means a trip to the hospital casualty department.
How do you know you are allergic?
Bee stings can bring out a mild reaction, usually in the form of temporary pain and a slight localised swelling where the sting penetrated the skin. It is less common to have a severe allergic reaction. But did you know that having one type of reaction doesn’t necessarily mean it will stay this way? You can have a different reaction every time you are stung by a bee. This means that you need to be cautious around bees whether you react mildly or not.
A mild reaction presents with:
- An immediate and sharp burning sensation at the site of the bee sting
- Redness around the area of the bee sting
- Slight swelling
Usually, this will clear up within a 12-hour period.
A moderate reaction presents with:
- More irritation over and above the immediate pain
- More redness
- More swelling - can start as small and grow bigger throughout the day
Usually, the swelling lasts longer than a day and can take as long as 10 days to clear up completely. Having a moderate reaction doesn’t mean you will have a severe allergic reaction if you get stung again. However, if the reaction gets slightly worse every time you are stung, it is recommended that you see your doctor to discuss treatment and prevention.
A severe allergic reaction presents with:
- Hives on the skin (not necessarily localised around the sting area) or the skin can become flushed or very pale
- Swelling of the throat and tongue which will cause difficulty breathing
- A weak and rapid pulse
- Dizziness and even fainting
- Loss of consciousness
This type of reaction is called anaphylaxis and can be fatal if not treated as an emergency. If someone shows the above symptoms call for an ambulance immediately. People who are severely allergic can have these reactions very quickly, and about 30 to 60% of people who have severe reactions can become anaphylactic the next time they are stung.
When are you more at risk?
If you have had a bad reaction to a bee sting before, you stand a bigger chance of having a severe allergic reaction if stung again.
Adults are more at risk of having a severe reaction than children and it can be more life-threatening for them.
If you are frequently outdoors or live close to a beehive you should be very cautious and take preventative measures.
By following some precautionary measures you will put yourself and your loved ones at a lower risk of being stung by bees:
- When outdoors, make sure you keep sweet drinks and all food covered.
- At home, clean away garbage and over-ripe fruit.
- During bee season - spring and summer - don’t go barefoot when you are outside.
- Be aware of beehives when you are mowing the grass as loud, vibrating noises can disturb the bees and, when threatened, the swarm may attack you.
- Do not wear bright clothing and sweetly scented perfumes and body lotions if you are going outdoors in bee season.
- If there are bees flying around where you are, do not panic and swat at them as this will make them feel threatened. Remain calm and slowly move away from them to another area.
- If you can hear or see a swarm of bees approaching, calmly but quickly leave the area and get inside the closest building. Close all windows and doors behind you until the swarm has passed by.
The good news
Most people only ever experience mild reactions to bee stings. According to the Journal of Asthma and Allergy, around 5% of people will experience a severe allergic reaction to insect stings in their lifetimes.
If you have a moderate or severe reaction to bee stings, you should make an appointment to see your doctor who can help you with preventative measures in the event of you being stung again.
Finally, if you are not sure about the seriousness of a sting you can call an emergency number and ask for advice or call for an ambulance.
For more information please contact:
Jurgen Kotze, Emergency Care Practioner (ECP) REG (ECP 0001031)
Advanced Life Support
Emergency number: 0861 007 911
+27 (0) 53 045 0350 (Royal Hospital and Heart Centre)
+27 (0) 53 723 3231 (Kathu Private Hospital)
Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.